June 24, 2024


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Richard Bona’s gifts as a world music vocalist of enchanting grace: Video

28.10. – Happy Birthday !!! The world music vocalist reveals his remarkable singing skills in an evening of coaxing dance rhythms and exultant percussive clamour.

For over two decades, the Cameroonian singer-songwriter Richard Bona’s gifts as a world music vocalist of enchanting grace, and his dazzling sideline as a great bass guitarist, have powered a unique fusion of west African music, pop, jazz, Cuban, Brazilian and Caribbean grooves. And somehow, he has continued to stir up the most rousingly communal music without ever seeming to hit anything hard or raise his remarkable voice.

Bona and his new Mandekan Cubano group – a sextet devoted to reappraising Africa’s influence on Cuban rhythms – did just that on the first of their two nights in London. A cruising Cuban chant was first invitingly warmed by gently goading trombone and trumpet riffs and the clatter of timbales. Dennis Hernandez’s muted trumpet line danced coaxingly around Bona’s falsetto on the ensuing ballad, and the first of a string of sparkling piano breaks from the superb Osmany Paredes opened in clipped jazz phrases and sly trills and built to percussive chords.

The group exuded the amiable understatement of an old-school Havana restaurant band on a bright groover built on tight brass counterpoint and brisker vocals of bustling accents and wild yodels. The radiantly smiling leader shared a jokey call-and-response with the audience before an exultant finale of horn hooks and percussion clamour. The only downside was that Bona tightly rationed his bass-playing firepower – but putting the vibe and meaning of music before any kind of grandstanding is always his guiding light.

As writer Amiri Baraka once said: “Blues playing is the closest imitation of the human voice of any music I’ve heard”. By the same token Richard Bona’s new release, tracing a vestige of the genre in different world cultures, reiterates the same concept: wherever there is humanity, there is the blues.

This album is not some philological essay on the blues scale as its title might suggest, rather a journey revolving around the blues perceived as ‘a feeling’. Under such auspices he gathers worldwide musicians to help shape his signature fusion of musical heritages: this time from India, his native Cameroon and adoptive US.

The geography of Bona’s inspiration is not new. John Coltrane looked to Africa and India to build a vocabulary beyond the western notational discourse, closer to his need for vocalised expression – which makes jazz so deeply indebted to blues. Joe Zawinul (with whom Bona collaborated during the Syndicate years, and to whom this project is in part indebted) played a pioneering role in fusing elements of jazz and worldwide music.

Each tune breeds a carnival of musical quotations. Gluing it all together is Bona’s silky, deeply intense voice – centre stage from the start in the a cappella opener Take One – and his talent as bassist and multi instrumentalist.

Shiva Mantra, an Indian born and bred track, is lightly infused with African and bluesy insertions. Kurumalete is perhaps the tune that owes most to Zawinul, both timbre wise and through its hectic rollercoaster of cultural quotations, while with African Cowboy Bona is back to a closer offspring of the pentatonic scale, country music. It’s an African rendition, Bona singing in Duala, perhaps to remind us that the banjo, after all, comes from the ngoni lute. The only traditionally recognisable blues number on the whole album is Yara’s Blues.

Above all, the Motherland is still the real protagonist, as a direct influence (Souleymane, Sona Moyo, Camer Secrets) and in Bona’s native Duala. Like with Bona’s previous releases Tiki and Munia: The Tale, The Ten Shades of Blues is a boundary-crashing work, perfectly packaged and enormously enjoyable.

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